This painting scroll 'The Field Note' consists of 20 small paintings (31.5cm*384cm), presented on a traditional Chinese rice paper folding booklet. Different from other paintings by the author, this series tells stories from an ethnographer’s point of view, including how to make local friends, how to deal with unexpected problems, get the information, keep a balance between work and life, etc. In one word, it illustrates the way the author, as ethnographer, is doing field work in a small factory town in southeast China.
Thus, it can be read as an autobiographical field note of doing field work, or a methodology book. This series is not only for anthropologists who may have some sympathy with the stories here, but also for people who are curious about anthropology and would like to know how an anthropologist works at her field site.
(Upper) Nowadays, when I look back, those days of reading books in the ivory tower are far far away.
(Lower) Books kept me company during the last few months before leaving for the field site. Besides books, I was so lucky to have a group of family-like project members to spend so much time with, discussing and enjoying life. However, I was not satisfied with the situation, I strongly felt that what I knew was so little, and I couldn’t wait for the D-day.
I soon settled down thanks to previous international calls which I had made to arrange my accommodation with local friends and I had a room immediately after my arrival. When I first arrived at my field site, everything just appeared so interesting and fresh in my eyes. I walked around without any specific purpose- just to embrace all the new things. I cherished such feeling of freshness so much because I know that I will soon lose such strong and fresh feeling about the place as long as I become familiar with it. It is always difficult not to take things for granted when you meet with them on a daily basis. Thus I kept many notes of all kinds of interesting and new things during that period of time.
I got the permission from the factory owner and I can visit the factory site with a temporary pass. The entrance to the factory looks like a huge and dark ‘Time Tunnel’. I felt I was inhaled into it. Even during the daytime, there was no efficient light inside the factory. The air is full of ceaseless loud machine noise and pungent smells of paint. When I first visited it, I really wanted to escape from there after half an hour.
The logic of the assembly line is ‘humankind is a part of the machine’. Initially I wanted to work with the factory girls on the assembly line to get to know them and be taken as an insider of the group. However, I soon gave up the plan. The reason was simple. The noise and the ceaseless assembly line deprived people from any conversation. Also, as long as I become an assembly line worker, I will be confined to my position all the time, which will further deprive me from visiting other places and other people in my field site. In the following months I visited and talked with assemblely line workers mainly during their after work time.
(Upper) Among all the jobs in the factory, forklift truck workers enjoy the most flexibility. They work upon the demands from other sections, so their working hour is intermittent. Thus I spent most of my time with forklift drivers in the factory, and I got to know the workers very well.
(Lower) Sometimes they let me to sit on the forklift truck and try to drive. However for safety considerations, I have never really worked as a forklift truck driver.
Breakfast booths are located along the sides of the street. Each booth has some old customers. Also it is always fine to share the table with strangers. Eating breakfast at the same table is a relatively natural way to make friends with strangers even though it won’t happen automatically without me taking the initiative. As a result, in order to know more people, sometimes I ate several breakfasts in one morning with different people.
(Upper) It is very normal that young mothers need to look after two or three young kids in my field site. Their husbands work in the factories, and they stay at home, looking after kids. They need to hold the youngest in their arms, thus they don’t have spare arms for the older ones. I helped them with the kids for a while and then I could join the chit-chat with young mothers naturally for an afternoon.
(Lower) He was born in the village where his parents came from and brought to the small factory town to live with his parents when he was two-year old. He was so timid when he first saw me, but now he is no longer afraid of me.
Before long I found that asking people to fill in a questionnaire was an impossible task in my field site. Anthropology does not rely on questionnaires to collect data, however in order to conduct a comparative study among different countries, our project decided to conduct one basic questionnaire among all the field sites. Most of the local people in my field site had never heard of questionnaires, let alone completed one. The majority of young workers on the construction sites and factories had middle school education, and the older ones only had primary school education. People even felt uncomfortable when I brought out pens and paper, let alone doing questionnaires. In the end, I decided to do an ‘invisible’ questionnaire, that is to integrate all the questions of the questionnaire in very informal conversations with my informants and I thus did the questionnaire for each one during the conversation. What is illustrated on the painting is during lunch break I am doing questionnaires with workers, lying in a temporary bed made from protective net on a construction site.
There is a busy high street in the small town. It is not very easy to turn shop owners into my informants. In the beginning, I approached them with a clear statement that I was doing research, and many of them would take me as promotion worker, or some weird person. So I learn from it, then I talked with others as if I was a potential customer, and gradually I let them know my study when they no longer had the heart to say no to me after friendly talks. That is also the reason why anthropological field work takes a lot of time - time is a good investment to win people’s trust and people’s heart and to know the truth. I was very lucky to win a mobile phone shop keeper’s trust, and from time to time I helped out at the shop. The mobile phone shop on the high street thus became a research spot outside of the factory.
(Upper) A photo always conveys information more than a thousand words. A smartphone which can take good photos is an indispensable tool during my field work. Photos taken by mobile phone are very important data. Using a mobile phone to take photos is very common among people and won’t highlight the action of photographing. Whereas, taking a photo with a big camera always reminds people of being watched and being photographed. Thus using a mobile phone is relatively easier for me to capture some real scenes. Sometimes, I would sit in the car and take hundreds of photos of passers-by at different spots in my field site and analyze those photos on my laptop.
(Lower) I was smiling when I took photos, so that most passers-by would think I am just taking a selfie.
Gradually, I got to know more and more people. And a special ‘social map’ emerged in my mind. When I walked around in my field site, the map popped up: The hairdresser where I can sit down for 1 hour in the morning when they are less busy, the internet cafes, the clinic, the news paper kiosk, the mobile phone shops, the restaurants, the groceries, the nail shops, etc. Here in this small factory town, there is no cafe or tea house where people can sit down and talk, however those places function as a social hub where I came to meet up with people and chat with them.
My field site is not a place that boasts pleasant weather. The local environment is also badly polluted by the nearby factories. In the summer, for four months the temperature is above 35 degrees, and during the hottest periods the temperature is always around 40 degree. Plus the humid air, one felt the temperature even higher to the degree that one could not breathe. The worse thing is in most of the places there was no air conditioner. In the winter the temperature is below zero. The moist air exacerbates the cold and none of the indoor places here are equipped with radiators. People’s social activity became limited given the extreme weather, so did my field work.
For an ethnographer, one thing about conducting field work is that it is very difficult to differentiate one’s personal life from one’s work given that ethnographers are supposed to immerse in the local life and local social networks. Thus in a way, you are working 24/7. Even though it is impossible to view things absolutely from the ‘local people’s point of view’, an ethnographer needs to make a great effort to reconstruct his/her own life to fit into the field site scenario. That is to say, from time to time I needed to oppress my personal opinion and emotion, and try to make friends with EVERY body. A mature ethnographer must have good emotional self-control and self-regulation. To be sincere but not naive. Every day, I needed to deal with people from a ‘different world’ and I sometimes had to decline video calls from my male informants at midnight or phone calls at 2 am. You can’t please everybody even though you are an anthropologist in your field site.
In many cases I have learnt to say NO. No ethnographer can avoid situations where you have to say no. When people get to know you very well, such things always happen. People believe you have the power to solve the pollution problem, corruption problem, the education problem for their kids and medical problems of their family, etc. They came to me for a job or simply to borrow money. They also asked me to do this and that since I was the nicest person they had ever met in the world. I tried to help according to my own ability, but most of the time I had to explain to them that being and anthropologist is different from being a policy maker, journalist or philanthrope. Our work is first of all to understand and to tell the truth which is ignored and unknown to the outside world. Problems can be noticed and get solved in the end because of our work however it will take a long time and our work can’t guarantee any immediate solution. Disappointing as it may sound, it is better than distorting the research course and bouncing checks.
All the Chinese characters are the surnames of people which I encountered in my field site. The majority of them belong to migrants and the local original surnames only account for two of them. Even though migrants live in the same place with the natives, they do not really have social connections with each other except for some functional interactions. I needed to understand not only the natives, but also the migrants. Living in this small town which consists of myriad ‘small circles’, I needed to deal with different groups of people with patience and caution. Even though my identity as a researcher allowed me a lot of freedom in terms shuttling back and forth among ‘circles’, I still needed to arrange my time to spend with different groups, keep proper distance and strike the balance in some subtle relationshipd.
Having meals or drinking together is always one of the best ways to know about people and make friends with them. Also here in China, restaurants are one of the most important social places. With the help of alcohol, people became more relaxed, more talkative, and more open. I was sitting there, enjoying watching the ‘drama’ and observing different kinds of people. I got a lot valuable and interesting information from the dining table.
(Upper) Gradually, I found more and more people started to treat me as a friend rather than a researcher, or they kind of forgot my identity as a researcher even though I had clearly told them at the beginning. They liked to chat with me and come to me to share stories with me. And from time to time they showed me some interesting stuff via smartphones just as what they normally do with friends. That’s the happiest moment for a researcher when your informants take the initiative, rather than you pushing them or inspiring them to get the information.
(Lower) Also, more and more people would like to introduce their friends to me. Getting to know people as ‘friend’s friend’ is always better than being a strange researcher; plus one can fit into the social network more naturally.
Interestingly, even though I have a laptop, I prefer to write down my field notes with pen and paper after a day of field work. For me taking notes or recalling the scenes in the site is a very creative process in which I enjoy doodling on the paper which a laptop screen does not always allow.
More often than not, people will feel freer to comment on others rather than talk about themselves, which in many cases also tells more truthful thoughts. One specific example gives rise to more interesting discussion than a general concept does. Thus, I always use other’s stories and my own stories to trigger discussions among my informants. As for visual analysis of people’s social media profiles, I also applied the same strategy - that is to invite people to comment on strangers’ (also my informants) online posts.
Social media is not only the research topic of this project but also the extremely important research tool. First, In my field site, most of the time, people don’t have private time to talk with me one-to-one – I always have to talk with people when they are working in a group or having meals with others. In which case, it was very difficult to develop the conversation on a more personal level where people can share ‘secrets’ with me. Thanks to the social media QQ and WeChat, I am allowed to talk with my informants in a very private space, and I have to say much of the most important information derives from the conversation online rather than offline. Second, each informant’s social media profile per se is the ideal personal ethnography in my eyes. Third, given the high mobility in my field site, people come and people leave all the times; however with social media we can keep contact without any problem, which also means even when I finish my field work and come back to London, the field work will actually continue.